How poetry therapy can help you tap your creative side to overcome depression, PTSD, and more

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How poetry therapy can help you tap your creative side to overcome depression, PTSD, and more
Singing is one method of poetry therapy.Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
  • Poetry therapy is an expressive arts therapy utilizing poems, lyrics, metaphors and more.
  • It can be used to address a range of issues and conditions, including depression and PTSD.
  • Poetry therapy can be used in one-person or couples therapy, family therapy, and with children, adults, and adolescents.

Poetry therapy is the use of poems, stories, song lyrics, imagery, and metaphors to aid in personal growth and healing. It is a type of expressive arts therapy, similar to art therapy and music therapy.

"When other techniques may not allow you to break through psychological defenses - in other words, if it's too difficult to talk directly about something - poetry therapy can help with that," says Nicholas Mazza, PhD, professor of social work emeritus at Florida State University and founding editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy. "It has the potential to validate how a person is feeling."

For centuries, both literary and medical minds touted the therapeutic benefits of poetry. But the National Association for Poetry Therapy wasn't founded until 1969.

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Here's more about poetry therapy, how it works, and who may benefit from it.

What is poetry therapy?

Poetry therapy sessions vary in style depending on the client's goals, Mazza says. Typically, the therapist will come prepared with several poems. The therapist will either read a poem aloud or ask the client to read it, and afterward will gauge the client's reaction. This promotes self-reflection and validates emotions, Mazza says.

"I would then ask what the client's reaction is to the poem, or if a particular line or image resonates with them," Mazza says. "I might ask the person to write their own poem at home." Writing can be done during the session or at home based on a carefully selected prompt.

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Mazza coined the three components of the RES Poetry Therapy Practice Model:

  • Receptive/prescriptive component: While the poem is being read, the therapist notes the verbal and nonverbal reactions of the client. The therapist will then ask the client to elaborate on those reactions and feelings.
  • Expressive/creative component: This involves the use of creative writing - poetry, letters, and journal entries - for the client's personal expression.
  • Symbolic/ceremonial component: This is the use of metaphors, storytelling, and rituals as therapeutic tools. Metaphors, which are used as symbols, along with rituals and storytelling, can help people communicate difficult emotions and experiences.

What conditions can be treated with poetry therapy?

Poetry therapy can be used to address a diverse range of issues and conditions, including but not limited to:

"It isn't just used for adults or for one-person therapy," Mazza says. "I have used it with couples therapy, family therapy, and children." It is also used with adolescents and in group work and can be used in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, and prisons.

Though there are not many large-scale studies, there is evidence that poetry therapy is helpful for multiple demographics and psychological hurdles.

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What the research says: One 2012 study linked poetry therapy to better self-esteem, problem-solving, and team-building among at-risk children. Other research found the technique increased hope and improved mood among women with breast cancer, while a 2009 journal article suggests writing poetry may help women deal with the grief related to infertility.

Mazza himself has used poetry to cope with the death of his own son, who was in a fatal car accident in 2005.

For many people, poetry therapy can be less intimidating than traditional talk therapy, Mazza says.

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"A lot of things are hard to talk about and being able to write about it can be helpful," Mazza says. "And if I can find a poem that relates to what they're experiencing, it validates they're not alone."

What are the benefits of poetry therapy?

Aside from validating personal experiences, poetry therapy can help people express emotions that seem too large for ordinary language. It can also help people deal with topics that are considered taboo in some cultures or overwhelming to discuss explicitly, like LGBTQI+, trauma, death, and dying.

Mental health benefits of poetry therapy include:

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  • Relieving depressive symptoms
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Improving self-understanding
  • Encouraging the expression of feelings
  • Reframing traumatic events to better cope
  • Helping process negative experiences
  • Improving social skills and fostering a more organized thought process

The benefits may transcend the mental health realm - studies have found that different forms of expressive writing, which poetry therapy is often described as could help improve conditions including:

What the research says: One study showed participants who wrote about their traumas showed significantly fewer illness-related visits several months after writing. In another small study, participants living with HIV who engaged in expressive writing for four days, 30 minutes each day, had stronger immune function compared to participants who had not done the same writing exercise.

How much does poetry therapy cost?

The cost of poetry therapy varies, just like any other type of therapy.

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Under the Affordable Care Act, every health insurance plan must cover a specific set of health services called "essential health benefits," which includes mental health.

However, the extent of your coverage will depend on your specific insurance and therapist.

Insider's takeaway

Poetry therapy can provide a helpful means of emotional expression and self-exploration. People who may benefit include anyone who is motivated and struggles with personal, interpersonal, or community challenges.

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The most important step for people interested in poetry therapy, Mazza says, is to do your research and figure out exactly what you're looking for.

Useful resource: If you are looking for a credentialed professional, visit the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy.

"You need to learn about it and part of that is through reading about it," Mazza says. "Look around for psychologists or clinical social workers and ask about their methods of treatment to see if it's right for you."

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For more information on poetry therapy, visit the National Association for Poetry Therapy.

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